A head for Asia
It isn’t the best of times for the art market. According to an analysis of public auctions of fine art by French online art price database Artprice, over 252,000 fine art lots were sold worldwide in the first six months of 2016, representing a fall in sales turnover of 25 per cent to US$6.53 billion (S$8.9 billion).
This follows figures from The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF), which showed that global art market sales fell seven per cent to US$63.8 billion in 2015, its first contraction since 2011.
Which means when you are the third-largest international auction house in the world and going into a new market, the idea is not so much to make a big splash as it is to leave a lasting impression and build the foundations for even better sales ahead.
That is pretty much what Phillips is planning on doing with its first 20th Century & Contemporary Art and Jewels sales in Asia. The November sales come on the heels of the appointment in March of Jonathan Crockett as its head of 20th-century and contemporary art as well as its deputy chairman, Asia.
This marks a significant expansion in Asia for the auction house, which is headquartered in New York and London.
“Phillips is an auction house that really focuses on contemporary art and culture," says Crockett in an interview at Phillips’ Hong Kong office. “It excels in the categories it specialises in, those being design, watches, jewellery, 20th-century and contemporary art, editions and photographs. Essentially, what we want to achieve with this first sale in Hong Kong is introduce ourselves to Asia as a company, because up until recently, we haven’t had much exposure to the Asian region as a whole."
Ever since Edward Dolman became Phillips’ chairman and chief executive officer in 2014, the focus has been to build the company’s presence in Asia. Phillips opened its new Asian headquarters in Hong Kong just last year, taking it from zero to 30 staff in the region, with representatives in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It is also eyeing further expansions into China and South East Asia.
“We’re moving quickly, but we still have a long way to go. We’re conscious of the fact that things have to happen in a natural and organic way. We’re going to start with a small sale in terms of quantity, but focus on putting together a very high quality selection of material to achieve as high as possible a price for each piece, thereby establishing a successful sale to attract further sales in future auctions."
Already, Phillips has had success with its two watch sales in Hong Kong, starting with the first in December last year. It sold a Patek Philippe for the highest price paid for a wristwatch at auction in Asia, before going on to beat its own record in its May sale.
While acknowledging that it faces “a number of challenges", Crockett remains confident. “The market is not as strong as it was a few years ago. For that very reason, it’s a good time to establish ourselves here because the market will only grow and we hope to grow with it."
One thing that will set Phillips apart is the fact that it is looking at what people are buying right now instead of focusing on what people are offering to sell. “We are going to take a different approach and see what the market is buying, absorbing and being very selective in terms of our offering. There’s only one other marketplace doing the same in Asia and that is Art Basel Hong Kong. It’s a good representation of what people are buying in Asia now."
Phillips will also simplify its offering.
“Instead of erecting different barriers and breaking the market into different categories – Asian contemporary art, Western 20th-century art, photographs or editions – we want to say this is art and we’re here to sell it. The one thing that’s going to bind them together is that they are art of the highest quality," says Crockett.
“The market right now is not particularly strong, but one repetitive theme is that works of the highest quality are still selling well."